Archive for the ‘Life of the Spirit’ Category

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Full Circle, Again

October 17, 2012

It’s Monday morning. I dropped Toby off at his new elementary school just in time for him to dash across the street and merge into the line of children with identical LL Bean backpacks falling off their shoulders, teary-eyed parents, and strollers with younger siblings wending their way around to the entrance closest to the kindergarten classrooms. Leo and I waved goodbye and drove the few blocks to Leo’s new family day care. All morning Leo recited his new mantra: “No Heidi’s house,” punctuated at various moments by “Mama come through the gate.” I left my crying two-and-a-half year-old in Heidi’s arms with snot running down his chin and streams of drool flowing generously from his teething mouth onto her shirt. “No Mama leave,” he sobbed while arching his back out of Heidi’s grasp toward me. I gulped back my tears and the urge to take him in my arms and never let him go. Instead, I stepped purposefully through the door without looking back, lest I turn into a pillar of salt and do nobody any good.

As I rushed from Heidi’s house to my appointment at Dana Farber, I was aware that most parents drop their children off and head to work, or the gym, or return home to their home offices or younger children. I don’t know why I continue to make these fruitless comparisons; they always make me feel shitty. It’s not the appointments at the cancer hospital that make me feel angry and exiled from the normal moms with their normal lives and normal troubles; it’s the cancer.

As I lay on the table in the chilly CT room with my arms raised above my head, receiving instructions from a digital voice to hold my breath as the narrow bed slid on its track in and out of the large donut tube, I found myself surprisingly at peace. Of course scans make me nervous, and before this scan I felt the usual flutter of nervous “scanxiety” that normally seizes me the week before my tests. But lying there with my eyes closed my anxiety miraculously and suddenly calmed. I know what I’m about to tell you will sound extremely cliché, but I felt the comfort of wings surrounding me. Honestly. I think angels are wonderful, beautiful, iconic, but they’ve never been my thing. I suppose I don’t really understand angels; in fact, I find them somewhat terrifying. But what really surprised me on the CT table, what caught me completely off guard was that the sensation originated in my own shoulder blades. They were my wings.

I know I haven’t written a post in many months, and I am sorry if this caused anyone to worry. The truth is I have just been so focused on the children and feeling somewhat private and protective of our lives together ever since my return home last February. I’ve also been a bit more tired, traversing yet more treatment decisions as the good results I achieved in China have been challenging to maintain. So to jump right in after months of silence and tell you that I feel the shadow of wings on my back may seem like a strange way to begin again.

Or maybe it’s exactly right. Lately, I have been thinking a lot about why I got cancer. When I was first diagnosed, the g.i. doctor made the easy assumption that it was genetic. But it’s not. My primary care doctor told me that it was just a game of numbers, the odds after all are that 1 in 2 women will contract the disease and fate just happened to pick me. (Yes, you did read that correctly. This stat comes from the SEER database (http://seer.cancer.gov/statfacts).

The oncologists said it was probably growing for a long time but they made no attempt to cite an original cause. When the sting of the new diagnosis was still fresh and I felt entirely robbed of the joys of new motherhood being diagnosed so soon after Leo’s birth, I would cast a scornful eye at all the unhealthy people I encountered on the street or in the supermarket, filling baskets with soda and bags of processed foods. My critic was merciless. How come they didn’t have cancer and I, with my relatively healthy lifestyle and knowledge of organic foods and colon cleansing (I mean, I did coauthor a book about the subject) had to go through this?

Eventually, I came to see the opportunity for greater self-awareness and deep healing. I realized that everyone has their own version of “cancer,” their own brand of challenges and fears. I came to a certain peace. Or did I?

This summer I took up some research into cancer and its possible causes yet again. I read up on mercury, and finally had the amalgam removed from my mouth. I read again about a possible link between parasites and cancer (Hulda Clark’s perspective) and ways to cleanse parasites from the body. I wrote to my friend Steven, a five-year lymphoma survivor, to see what he knew about this. He responded to my email with links and helpful information, while managing to gently tuck in the following questions: “I am very interested to know what gift you have received from this dis-ease? Why do you think you manifested it?”

“Oh man,” I thought to myself. “I am in no mood for this.” Some days I am exactly in the type of psycho-spiritual vibe to contemplate this line of inquiry, but back in July with the skin on my eyelids and neck burning to a crisp every time I even thought about the sun and my face freshly broken out in ugly, juicy pimples like an adolescent thanks to the Erbitux biotherapy infusions (which didn’t work) and utterly exhausted by the kids and the house and cooking dinner every night and shopping and laundry and driving, well it just didn’t hit the right chord.

Steven has the luxury to think about these things because he doesn’t have children and does yoga and meditation and takes month-long permaculture courses and fasts on juice for weeks at a time. I mean, the man lives in the mountains of Thailand for God’s sake! I rolled my eyes at his questions and dismissed them as “Steven being Steven.” And Shira being Shira continued fiercely with the daily business of life and doing.

But the thing about Steven is that he has this way of asking you how you are and sincerely meaning it. He puts his arm around your shoulder, peers into your eyes, bends close and waits for an answer with every breath as though you were the only two people on the planet. From halfway across the world, I could feel that searing yet loving presence, the nudge to go deeper, to face myself stripped down and in the barest of honesty. I guess Steven did hit a chord after all, and when I listened I could hear the note reverberate within.

In the comfort of the brown leather chair on the third floor attic room of my therapist’s Victorian house, I closed my eyes and let the tears fall. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the lungs are identified as the seat of sadness and grief. Both of my lungs are sprinkled throughout with small tumors that glow bright white against the gray background of Cat scans. They frighten and fascinate, these little, deadly illuminations. I tell my therapist that I think the tumors in my lungs are calcified tears, the hardened skeletal remains of all the sadness and grief I held onto in my life.

Just as the lungs hold grief, the liver is the supreme keeper of anger, resentment, frustration, irritability. If the tumors in my lungs are hardened tears, then the plump toad of a lesion sitting in my liver is hot, hot, hot, red hot, no, white hot shrieking irrational rage. From all outward appearances I seem to have so much together, but my liver tells another story, and it is old and in a language I don’t always understand.

I ask my therapist: “Why did I get cancer?”

She asks: “Why did you get cancer?”

Then she asks: “Are you ready to let it go?”

She sits across from me in an identical brown chair. She too went through chemo, hair loss, the intrusion of constant monitoring. She sips from her large mug of tea and waits for my answer. Her loving presence reaches across the space between us, like an arm extending out to wrap around my shoulders. She waits.

“Close your eyes,” she says. “Go within. Ask yourself.”

I close my eyes. I go within. Down, down, down, I continue down the corkscrew spirals of a dark interior that feels fecund and earthy and moist. I realize that I am in the underworld. Of course. My recurring obsession. Gilgamesh. Persephone. Innana. Orpheus. Dante.

At the bottom of the world, I sit in darkness. I don’t have to wait long until a figure appears there with me. “Grandmother?” I wondered to myself, hoping that I would see the friendly wise face of the guide who has often come to me in my meditations this year. As the image becomes clearer, I realize it is not grandmother. It is, in fact, my own reflection.

Face to face. Myself. In the circle of the lowest depth. I ask: “Am I ready to leave cancer?”

“Not yet.” The answer unsettles. But I recognize its truth: I know there’s more to learn. More to release. More to come to terms with. Why is there always more?

“How will I find my way out?” I whisper.

The panic rises as I realize how deep I am below, and how far daylight is above.

And then the way shows itself. Easily, as though it had always been there, a spiral staircase appears, reaching up and up and up with every twist higher toward what I can only imagine is sky, air, light, hope, healing, future. It is not mine to climb just yet, but as I investigate closer I see that the staircase is not made of wood or steal but words, a double helix spiral of words. They are these words that I write now, the ones that float in and out of my consciousness all day, rewriting my story from powerless victim to open, attuned conduit of life force and love. Such immense joy I feel to see my life’s path! I will write my way out of the underworld one word at a time. I will rewrite my DNA.

I notice the dark air around me is full of sound, and it’s coming from the staircase of words. Oh what music. I wish you could put the spiral of your ear to the ground and hear this angelic choir emerging from the deepest center of the earth, where I sit and wait, gazing up in awe and rapture at the possibility before me.

The last time I saw my oncologist, we reviewed the results of the Cat scan, which he later dictated in his office note as “promising.” We agreed on our plan of action – basically, to stay the current course of treatment with my little oral cocktail of pills – and then I asked him about other procedures and options. I think he’s gotten used to my hunger for research, and my perpetual requests to customize the menu so to speak. While I know I sometimes frustrate him with my inquiries and outside consultations with other oncologists and practitioners, I get his goodness and that he really does want to help. As we said goodbye, I blurted out, “Next time we meet I will tell you how this is really the underworld,” I said gesturing to the generically handsome hallway of Dana Farber Cancer Institute. “Okay,” he said  with a furrow in his brow.

Later, at home, the kids hit the witching hour of 5 pm and started to nag, push, and fight with each other for space on the easy chair while I lay on the couch with the unspeakable exhaustion that sometimes overtakes me late afternoon, and especially on days I have to go to the hospital. “Okay,” I said popping up suddenly, “let’s take this to the ground. Come on little puppies, time to roll around.” I moved the table out of the way. The simplest change in physical environment immediately shifted their energy. I lay a blanket on the rug. “Who wants to roll up first?” Toby pushed his little brother out of the way and plopped down on the soft wool blanket. I rolled him up and suddenly he became a pupa, wriggling around in his chrysalis. “Is the butterfly ready to come out?” I asked. Toby giggled and wriggled more, and then with great force he broke free of the dark blanket and began to move his arms slowly as though he had just sprouted wings and was uncertain how to use them. “Leo’s turn! Leo’s turn!” Leo squealed, eager for his chance to become a butterfly.

We played until David came home an hour later, and then nearly every day for the next week the children pushed the coffee table to the side and said “let’s play metamorphosis.” I watched those boys who came from my womb reenact that most primal transformation, from darkness to light, formlessness to form, again and again, never tiring of the game. Every muscle and thought in their compact little bodies focused on the moment, which buzzed with their raw vitality. I’ve traveled the world and have tried dozens of healing modalities. And what I know with absolute certainty, what my five- and two-year-olds have always known, is that the impulse of life is toward life. And it really is that simple.

As for Steven’s question, I think that I’ve always known the answer. It’s a feeling I can remember having my whole life–and maybe even longer than that–and it has to do with suffering and God and our connection to life. I’m still living inside the question, feeling along its edges and interiors. And as I continue to experience the kindness and caring of so many people along this journey, the helping hands that always appear exactly at the right time, and feel myself soften more into love and light and joy, I think I am beginning to get a glimmer of how healing might work. It’s in the gardens we plant and the photosynthesis of the leaves. It’s our hearts, and eyes, and ears opening to each other fully in the present moment without distraction. It’s forgiveness and compassion, and letting go. Healing is in the rivers and the constant flow and change of life, which does include death, but death is just another type of change.

In moments like these when my mind reaches from rapture to connection, to insight, and grasps to find just the right words, it comes in the form of images, the language of poetry. This time, it is the last lines of Stanley Kunitz’s poem “The Layers” that play in my mind. In an interview about this poem, he said: “In the middle of the night, I’d had this dream of a voice out of a cloud, and this is what the voice spoke to me.”

In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered and I roamed through the wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice directed me:
“Live in the layers, not on the litter”
Though I lack the art to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter in my book of transformations is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

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For Paul

April 19, 2012


The last time I saw Paul it was early the morning of February 12, the day I flew from Cebu to Hong Kong on my way home to the States. The doorman of the apartment building where we were staying called to announce the taxi’s arrival. I peeked into Paul’s room, not wanting to wake him but also hoping for the chance to say goodbye. He opened his eyes and popped out of bed. Well, “pop” doesn’t really describe the way he gingerly rolled to a seated position, swung his legs over the side of the bed, then tested his weight on the floor before standing. The tumor invading his spinal cord had been slowing him down, to put it mildly. “Give me a sec,” he said shuffling off to the bathroom.

Paul, T, and I had been roommates in Cebu, the most developed island in the Central Visayas, the Philippines, for 10 days. Paul and T began their rather tumultuous journey there weeks before my arrival and would stay for weeks beyond my departure. Our time together was a bit of a reprieve, at least for me, a parenthetical moment of time out of time marked by fresh air, blue skies, organic food, visits to our friend Eleanor’s organic farm, and hours and hours of treatment with the photodynamic therapy (PDT) medical laser.

After a few days in the penthouse we rented from our new friend Eleanor, we were like siblings, sometimes squabbling over who got to use one of the coveted internet cables or griping about dishes that weren’t washed well enough. “I hate when people just swish their hand over a dish and don’t wash it,” Paul reminded us over and over again. “My daughters do that all the time. Swish, swish, swish. I like to use a cloth and really hot water.” Paul was brought up in Michigan but had lived in Texas for many years. He would ramble on incessantly with his Texan twang about any and every topic that came to mind. We heard his dishwashing lecture at least once a day. But then Paul became too tired and weak to wash his own dishes, so T and I took over and Paul never complained again about a dirty spoon or plate that might have missed quality control.

“Thank you,” he said instead. He said it all the time. He was appreciative of every kindness and act of generosity or hospitality that came his way. When Paul thanked you, you know he really meant it.

And that’s what he said to me as he put me in the cab that morning. “Thank you for bringing so much sunshine, for your grace, and love, and singing.” The tears pricked at my eyes.  “We are going to beat this,” he said to me. “We’re going to be just fine.” I hugged his frail frame and looked into his shining blue eyes one last time, and then the taxi pulled away. I knew I wouldn’t see Paul again, and it hurt. It still does.

The funny thing is Paul drove me nuts when I first met him at the hospital in China. He arrived sometime in the fall, late October or maybe early November, eager and excited to try a new treatment that would halt his advanced melanoma. Before Paul dove into the ultrasound bath and other treatments, Dr. Wang scheduled him for staging tests including a full PET scan. The results came back on Paul’s 50th birthday, and they were devastating: the cancer had spread everywhere. Instead of dealing with a few lesions, they counted up at least 40 tumors from his brain to his liver along his back and arms, spinal column. I don’t really know how Paul handled this news in the privacy of his own thoughts and feelings, but he managed to eat the birthday cake the nurses had bought him and later he went out for a birthday dinner with the Western gang.

If your door was open, Paul would wander in, sit down and talk. Politics. His daughters. His ex-girlfriend. His auto shop. Dirt bikes. Stocks. Cancer treatment. He was especially excited about a new therapy in clinical trials involving the use of a red dye originally from India called rose Bengal. He talked and talked. Often he would repeat himself. I admit that many times I wasn’t in the mood for Paul. I would smile and nod and interject with questions at the right moments while I busied myself with small tasks like hanging the laundry to dry or chopping vegetables for a soup. Frankly, I had become covetous of my space and solitude. My little hospital room was my sanctuary, and I fear I wasn’t always so gracious or welcoming to Paul, who was really all alone thousands of miles from home, in the last months of life, and needing connection and camaraderie and love and friendship and forgetting, just like most of us.

As we got deeper into the month of November, a wave of nostalgia seemed to roll over T. The fact that she was still in China, still away from home, and would miss Thanksgiving was really bumming her out.  T was our world-savvy traveler, the journalist who thrived on getting the real stories in some of the most turbulent parts of the world. She surprised us all with her tenacity for holiday tradition. She sank her teeth into the fantasy of a big Thanksgiving meal and just wouldn’t let it go. Really, where would we get a turkey in Houije Town, Dongguan, China, where the local supermarket sold dog meat and chicken feet? There was also the problem that most of us were in some phase of treatment, from chemo to immunotherapy to receiving sonophotodynamic therapy and not necessarily in top shape to hunt all over China for a turkey.

And then a miracle happened. The hospital director told us that he would like to make a Thanksgiving celebration for all the Western patients and our staff of the 16th floor. Cassie, one of our translators, came around with a pad of paper to take our Thanksgiving dinner suggestions. Paul happened to be visiting my room at the time. Her list included a daunting menu: chestnut stuffing, gravy, candied sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, biscuits, apple pie, and of course turkey.  Paul talked all about the necessity of his special Cajun turkey basting butter while Cassie nodded, raised her eyebrows, and seemed helplessly lost by it all. Then Paul made a pitch for string bean casserole. Cassie wrote it all down, then looked at us seriously and asked: “What’s string bean casserole?”

I had to draw the line somewhere. How was a Chinese cafeteria cook who only knows woks, steamers, and deep fryers possibly going to understand Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup? Besides, there’s just something wrong about any food that requires a can of soup as a central ingredient. When it became obvious that the hospital cook wouldn’t turn into Martha Stewart in a day, we realized the burden of preparing Thanksgiving actually fell on our shoulders, or rather, largely on T’s. Somehow she enlisted Paul as her sous chef and off they went to the enormous Tesco supermarket for butter, flour, sweet potatoes, onions, garlic, and four or five huge bags worth of groceries to feed 30 people.

The turkey arrived on Thanksgiving morning, frozen, and Paul lovingly prepared the bird. In fact, he was responsible for much of the Thanksgiving meal. Between trips to the hospital canteen kitchen, whose greasy floor was as slippery as an ice skating rink, Paul would lie down for cat naps.  Kevin, Gai, and I laughed among ourselves about Paul’s questionable cooking skills and doubted how it would all turn out. I mean, the man entrusted with the centerpiece of the meal was the same one who had burned at least three pots of rice when he first arrived in China and lived on cans of tuna. But Paul threw himself wholeheartedly into the task. I realized that this was true to his nature: he loved to be of service and he took on Thanksgiving with all of the seriousness, dedication, good humor, equanimity, precision of planning, and irrepressible positive spirit that he tackled every problem he faced, from fixing a washing machine to cooking a frozen turkey using a surgical syringe as a baster to treating end-stage melanoma.

When Paul presented us with a perfectly roasted, golden-skinned, juicy, well-seasoned turkey that evening I think we all realized how much we underestimated him. His toast to the crowd of 15 Westerners and 15 Chinese was just as spot on, conveying the warmth and meaning of the holiday and saying how much he appreciated this family of ours at Renkang Hospital.

It’s not my intention to eulogize Paul, to elevate him to a saintly status or anything like that. I simply want to spend time with him again by reliving these memories. A few weeks ago Paul entered my dream. We were in Cebu, and he showed up looking bright and healthy. “I’m back!” he sang out gleefully, “I feel great and I’m ready for more treatment.” I looked at him closely. He was glowing and beautiful, but something didn’t feel right. “Paul,” I said slowly, “I don’t believe you. I don’t believe that your body’s okay.” Somehow I couldn’t turn away from the truth, and I held his gaze with a mixture of compassion and love. Seconds later I woke up with a start and told David about the dream.

That night I called Paul’s nephew, Broc. T had sent news that Paul had entered hospice care about a week earlier, and the dream made me anxious to find out about his condition. Broc told me that Paul had died two days earlier. I let out a big sigh. I suppose I had known from the dream that Paul had crossed over, but hearing the news was still hard. It seemed to happen so fast too. Just weeks earlier we were in the Philippines, planting trees at Eleanor’s farm, going out to dinner, having heartfelt and silly talks, and becoming such good friends.

You see, I really grew to love Paul. Living with him those 10 days, I came to see his goodness and light and humility. He was so open to people, talking at great length with the building’s maintenance man or whoever came across his path. He had time, interest, and undivided attention for everyone. I even became fond of his constant stream of conversation. It made me laugh! Paul once told me that he had had so much radiation to his brain that his memory had been fried. He couldn’t remember what he said, so he said it again, and again. Sometimes I would listen to his stream of consciousness while he was getting his laser treatments. If he wasn’t asleep, he would ramble on and on, sometimes for hours, about anything that crossed his mind. One day I stood outside his door and listened to him explain to our Filipino nurse all about the strong body odor of kids from his high school who ate lots of curries. Paul must have graduated from high school a good 32 years ago, what was he talking about? Oh but it made me laugh.

I laughed with him when sometimes I wanted to cry for him. As the tumor pressed more on his tailbone, he began to lose function of his bowel and bladder. Seeing a grown man in adult diapers is not an easy sight, and it reminded me of my father’s last months. Even in pain, even with the potential humiliation of losing control of such a primary function, Paul kept it light. He wasn’t trying to put on a good face. He really was light. I heard him once talking by Skype to a buddy of his who had been paralyzed years ago in an accident. He told this friend how much respect and admiration he had for him and what he’s had to endure in life. “Me, I have a little back pain and I act like a baby,” he said self-effacingly.

Oh, Paul. This fucking disease. I know it wouldn’t be in your nature to curse like this. You seemed so resigned to the hand that you were dealt: blond hair, fair skin, blue eyes, you said you were the perfect candidate for melanoma. When Dr. Wang told you the treatments weren’t helping and that Renkang Hospital had nothing more to offer, you said you knew there was only a 5% chance of success, and you thanked them for their kindness and care. You just packed up your jar of rose Bengal and went for one more chance: the Philippines.

When the rose Bengal injection to the tumor in your bicep seemed effective you said to me: “Just get your ass here!” It was glib, slap-happy talk. I was a wreck. Weak, afraid, uncertain what to do. “We’ll have that pink blanket of love ready for you,” you said referring to the image I used to prepare for surgery a few weeks earlier. I have no regrets about my time in the Philippines. To the contrary, I feel grateful for the laughter and love, and the opportunity to nourish my body and soul with the simple elements of the earth: sunshine, blue skies, organic greens, coconut water, sea views.

My second evening in Cebu, I sat on a footstool in the kitchen while Eleanor chopped off what remained of my chemo-damaged hair. I couldn’t stand to watch it fall out anymore, besides it had become so dead and brittle that it actually hurt my head. While Eleanor snipped, Paul used his electric razor to buzz off the patchy mess that had become my hair. Somehow sitting in the kitchen while friends helped me become bald made it all okay. “Oh Shira,” Paul said stepping back for a moment, “you have such a pretty face.” With that one compliment, I stopped feeling unfeminine and like the ugly duckling who needed to hide her head for about a million years. Paul showed me I could be a swan after all.

To be honest, Paul’s baldness used to irk me. When we walked through Houjie Town together I worried that people would think of him as a cancer patient, and then wonder about me by default. But as the razor buzzed along my scalp and the dead hair fell to the floor, I felt liberated. Suddenly Paul’s baldness seemed friendly. I wouldn’t be alone.

A few days later we slathered on sunscreen, dressed in long sleeves, scarves, and hats to shield our photosensitive skin from the strong Cebu sun, and drove the hour to San Giminiano, Eleanor’s organic wellness farm and retreat center. The ride seemed to exhaust Paul, and he took a long nap after we arrived. It was Tu’Bshevat, the Jewish birthday of the trees. Eleanor is a devout Christian and loved talking to me about Jewish tradition. In celebration of the day, she asked her farm manager, Danny, to prepare three trees for T, Paul, and me to plant.

After a lunch of fresh farm greens, tomatoes, cheese, cassava wrapped in banana leafs, tumeric tonic, and after a good hard rain, we ventured outdoors. Danny presented Paul with an acerola cherry tree to plant. Danny had dug a hole for the tree, and we told Paul to offer a silent prayer as he planted his tree. An intention. A blessing. He knelt down, put his hands in the squishy mud and patted it around the thin trunk of the young tree. When he finished, he stood up and studied his hands, full of dark, rich, earth.

I don’t know what he prayed for as he planted his cherry tree. I can only assume he prayed for the same thing that I did when I planted my tree or that T might have when she planted her special cinnamon tree. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe he didn’t ask for something for himself at all. Maybe he was thinking of his daughters. Or his new friends going through their own journeys. That would be just like him.

When he finished praying, I quietly whispered the Hebrew: “ken yehi ratzon.” May it be your will. I find myself saying it again now.

Home in Boston, spring has arrived unusually early with record temperatures in the 80s. It is mid-April and already the daffodils have come and gone. The tulips are up and the azalea bushes have begun to bloom. The trees in our backyard have nearly all leafed their tender young greens. It is a terrible season for allergies. Toby and Leo play outside for hours. David turns the soil of our little garden. The earth has clearly awakened, as it does each spring, always to my deep astonishment and gratitude.

And everywhere I look I am utterly stunned, in the kind of makes your heart swoon because the world is just so gorgeous and how can we ever be big enough to take it in sort of way, by my favorite springtime sight. Cherry blossoms. Oh look how the blooms fill the trees, weigh down the bows with their fragrant exuberance. And when the wind blows it’s like a swirling snow of pink petals that whirl for a moment suspended in the air until at last they fall, spreading, spreading in what I can only describe as a pink blanket.

This time, friend, the love is for you. All you.

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Notes From a Gray Couch: Hong Kong Part 2

November 7, 2011

I awoke in my friend Gilly’s guest bed in Hong Kong, where I’d come for my second rest break between SPDT cycles, to the all-too familiar feeling of upheaval in my stomach. Nausea seems to be my plague in China, but I wasn’t on chemo and I never expected immaculately clean Hong Kong restaurants to get me sick. Instead of drifting peacefully on a calm sea of 400-thread-count white sheets I felt like I was rolling in the swells on dad’s fishing boat.

Memories of rich meals, grilled lamb, mini hamburgers, roasted potatoes smothered in cheddar cheese, that enormous T-bone steak we shared the night before played across my mind. I pulled my sleep mask back into place and burrowed into the covers, exhausted, nauseous, and afraid that I had jeopardized my treatment – and for what? – meat of all things! I cursed my sensitive digestion, sure I had contracted another bout of e-coli (or some such bacteria) which had left me sick as a dog and unable to receive all of my chemo just a few weeks earlier.

Restless, I tossed the covers off and stumbled to the bathroom where I splashed water on my pale, clammy face. I had promised David we would Skype, so I booted up the laptop and called my love. Hearing his voice brought up the tears I had tried to push away. David did all the right things. He listened to me complain. He said “oh, honey” just when I needed to hear it. He listened to my fears that I would be sick for another week and that I screwed up the most important thing I have to do, the only real thing I have to do: life-saving cancer treatment. He told me he was there for me. And then he proved it by accompanying me to the bathroom. I set the laptop on the floor and was immediately sick in the toilet while in the background David made soothing sounds. Oh ours has become a modern romance.

I brushed my teeth and wandered out to the living room where I made camp on Gilly’s enormous, custom-built gray sectional. Gilly had already left for work, but his helper Andrea was there, bustling about the apartment making the bed, cleaning the bathroom, washing the breakfast dishes. “Good morning! Boker tov!” she said brightly in her musical Filipino accent (Andrea worked in Israel for eight years before coming to Hong Kong and makes a mean matzo ball soup). “Would you like I make you fresh grapefruit juice?” I groaned at the thought of acid hitting my already roiling insides, and told her I wasn’t well. “Everything will be okay,” she said nodding her head for emphasis, “don’t worry.” Andrea says this to me a lot, usually with a slightly worried look on her face.

Andrea tucked me in with a pillow and blanket, made me a cup of tea, then went to the store to buy bread and raspberry jam. For the first time since starting treatment, someone was there to take care of me. Toast and tea may not seem like a big deal, but I was so grateful for this nurturing. I looked out the window at the blue sky and could feel the promise of my day’s plans to explore Hong Kong’s beaches evaporate. I didn’t have the energy to argue. I gave in to my body. I gave in to the exhaustion. And so, listening to the comforting sound of Andrea’s flip flops thwacking against the hardwood floor as she hurried from one end of the apartment to the other, I fell asleep.

For years, and I mean many, many years, I have ignored my body when it told me it was tired. My father always accused me of burning my candle at both ends. Busyness equaled productivity, which stood for success. When I felt tired, which was just about most of the time, I pushed ahead. I thought if I worked out more, then I wouldn’t feel so tired. If I stayed busy and kept moving, then I’d have more energy. If I drank coffee, ate something crunchy — if, if if…. If meant ignoring my body’s clear and consistent message: “Girlfriend, take a nap. Go to bed earlier. Rest!” Feeling tired scared me, but slowing down to rest frightened me even more.

“What’s wrong with me?” I’d wonder. And something was wrong with me, was growing more and more out of balance, but I was too damned obstinate to listen. Even after I gave birth to Leo, had surgery, and then took chemo for six months, I prided myself on operating at just about 100 percent by keeping up with the kids, making dinner every night, shopping, doing laundry, staying on top of household maintenance, even freelancing a little. When my friend Ilana said that I was more productive while on chemo than she was in her normal life, I felt a little ripple of pride.

Hadn’t my cancer diagnosis taught me anything? Apparently not, as I was still aiming for perfectionism: I would “do” cancer efficiently, brilliantly, creatively, inspirationally. I would get straight A’s and make it look easy. And then the cancer spread.

If my original cancer diagnosis wasn’t enough of a wake-up call, then reading “progressive metastatic disease” on the radiology report had what it took to shake me permanently out of my sleep. And you see that’s the irony. I was so busy staying busy and fantasizing some other version of a perfectly fulfilled life that I didn’t realize I was actually sleeping my life away. That one string of words at the end of a CT report, words normally followed by a calculation of months, brought me stark naked, crying, and vulnerable as a newborn into the present.

I woke up on that oasis of a gray couch a few hours later. My stomach pains had disappeared, and I was hungry for the thick slice of toast I had abandoned on the plate before dozing off. Could a simple nap really have healed me? By doing nothing, I felt better. Most importantly, and I sighed with relief, treatment would resume as scheduled.

The next morning Hong Kong greeted me with yet another gift of blue sky. In a part of the world plagued with smog sometimes so thick you can look directly at the sun midday, clear skies are rare and precious. To celebrate my last day in the city, I took a tram ride up to the Peak where I planned to have a very simple lunch at an outdoor café and then walk in the sunshine.

While walking the loop around Victoria Peak, overlooking the skyscraper city of Hong Kong far below with its harbor of miniature boats bobbing across the sea like children’s bath toys, I found myself, as I often do these days, talking to God.

I realize, God, that I have been like a child. For almost 40 years I took my life for granted, believing that I were immortal and that nothing bad could happen to me. It was a naïve, privileged life. It’s not that I didn’t know death. I learned all about death at my parents’ sick beds, and I tell you I wasn’t afraid. In fact, I felt a certain instinct for it. You might say I have a calling for how to be with the dying, how to ease their fears, lessen their attachment to the living, midwife them across the threshold to the other side. I just never expected to face the truth of my own immortality at quite so early an age.

And I want to thank you, thank you, for shaking me out of my waking sleep. You brought me to the precipice and the fingers of fear stroked my spine until I felt the white hot dread of everything that I would lose, everything that I love. It is my children I love. My husband. My sisters, all my family members. My friends. It’s dancing and playing chase around the backyard. It’s the blue-green earth and the ocean full of whale song. It’s a novel I can’t put down and lines of poetry so perfect and true they bring me to tears. It’s praying in community in any and every language. It’s blueberries in July and butternut squash in October. It’s the New England forest and all of the mountains and harbors and romantic cafes I’ve yet to visit.

It is life that I love, God. Finally, my whole being knows this! I spent so may years in limbo, just waiting and waiting for my life to begin, and now that I see its trajectory like the arc of a rainbow that begins and ends in earth, I want to rise up with every cell in my body to touch, taste, feel, see, listen, experience it all.

Please, God, I know that I am just one small spark in a city of millions on a planet of billions of souls in a universe beyond enumeration, but it is my soul and so to me that means everything, and I ask you God to remove this cancer completely and permanently from my body. Fill me so completely with your light that the darkness is overwhelmed and can do nothing but weep for the sight of so much love. I understand I’m asking for nothing short of a miracle, but that’s only because I believe in them, as I am finally coming to believe in you.

I stop walking and stand on a platform overlooking the view. If you were to see me there you would probably think I was just another tourist, with my sunglasses, bottled water, and shoulder bag full of trinket souvenirs slung diagonally across my back. If you looked more closely you would notice the flush on my cheeks, the private smile on my lips, my head tilted as though I were listening to the wind. You would see me take a deep breath, exhale, laugh out loud. You would see me reach my arms high into the brilliant blue.

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Spinning!

March 10, 2011

For months I’ve peeked into the dark cave of the spinning room at my gym and felt a curious pull to experience its inner mysteries. Pounding music, the acrid smell of sweat, the instructor yelling into a microphone, legions of red-faced and totally buff women generating enough electricity to power our fair town. That was the party I wanted to go to. Instead, I would walk right on past to the magazine rack where I hoped to find a back issue of People magazine to keep me company on some boring piece of cardio equipment.

For the last year, just getting to the gym has been enough. When I returned to my workouts after having Leo, I’d look at myself in the mirror as I did my bicep curls and think: “Not bad for having delivered a baby three weeks ago.” When I resumed workouts after having the cancer surgery, I’d catch a reflection of myself in the mirror while walking on the treadmill and think: “Not bad for having just had surgery.” When chemo started I made it a point to continue exercising for both my physical and mental health. “Not bad for being on chemo,” I’d say to myself while I did my ab routine.

This morning I dropped the kids off early and made it to the gym in time to score the last spinner available. I didn’t think too much about it, or else I would have lost my nerve, slunk out of the room and headed for the comfort of the Oscar issue of People magazine. I just hopped on and began adjusting the seat, handlebars, pedals. Everything seemed to move in some direction. Fortunately, our instructor, Jane, helped me out. She pulled hard on the straps, caging my feet in. There was no escaping now!

Then the music started. A thumping fast rhythm, and I was following the other ladies, going up and down in my seat, standing and pedaling, leaning forward, then back down in the saddle. In the front of the room, Jane waved her arms up and down, conducting us like an orchestra. I couldn’t stop smiling. The craziest, dumbest grin plastered itself on my face. Thank God my private party of one was happening in the last row. This was a blast! This was like dancing and riding and flying all at once. If Jane caught me smiling, then she’d surely hop off the instructor’s bike and come ratchet up my tension. I had heard she’s that kind of teacher.

By the third song, my smile had migrated inside. My mouth was open, sweat dripped down my face, and I was huffing and puffing with my head down, knowing my heart rate was probably through the ceiling but I didn’t care. I had been holding my body so tightly, in protective crash-ready position for months, that I forgot how to let go and feel easy and free and strong and delighted by my body. For over a year, since being pregnant and then with the cancer treatments, I had been careful not to push myself. Always careful, careful, careful (a word I catch myself using too often with my preschooler). But now I was curious to see what this body could really do. I tightened the tension on the spinner and proceeded to climb up the fictitious hill we were endeavoring to scale along with Madonna, every muscle in my legs and butt burned with the effort, and it sucked and was exhilarating at the same time.

I began to tell myself the same old tired phrase: “Not bad for…” But as quickly as the words formed, they disappeared. The story of everything that I had gone through, the sad story I kept spinning around myself without even realizing it, simply ended. In the space that opened up I realized that what came before me doesn’t matter. I understood that if I keep telling myself the same story of cancer and hardship then I will always be defined by cancer, even though I made it through the treatments and as far as I know am disease free. It’s just like the self-help guru Byron Katie asks: “Who would you be without your story?” In this particular moment, who I am is a woman cycling like mad on this bike and feeling, dare I say it, okay. No, not just okay, I was downright energetic and healthy and so deliciously, salty, sweaty, smelly ALIVE.

Okay, so I did need to pay attention to my stomach muscle, which is still healing from the ileostomy reversal surgery I had 6 weeks ago. I wasn’t dumb. But nothing hurt. Nothing was uncomfortable, that is, until Jane came around and asked how I was doing. I gave her a big smile and a thumbs-up. Hmm, perhaps not the best response? She said I looked a little too good, and on the next chorus she cranked my bike’s knob to maximum tension and shouted at me to give it everything I had. “For the next 8 seconds, go as fast as you can, drive it harder,” she ordered. “Go, Shira!” she shouted above the ear-deafening music. “Give it everything you’ve got. Push! Push! Push!” By the time the song ended, my legs were jelly and I was panting for air.

The sweat was so healing. It’s as though my body wasn’t just detoxing pollutants but also ridding my mind of false limitations. As a child, I was always the chubby kid who went to diet camps, got picked last for sports teams, and laughed at during gym class when we had to do the Presidential Fitness Tests. My elementary school gym teacher, Mr. Mingle, would lift the girls up to the hanging bar, step back, and click on the stopwatch. Some of the gymnasts could hang for up to two or three minutes. It seemed like those little bodies just swayed up there forever. But when Mr. Mingle lifted me up to the bar, I immediately dropped to the floor like a sack of rocks. He didn’t even have a second to fool with his watch.

This self-deprecating, sad, fat girl still lives inside of me. Like a ghost, she rattles around my mind and haunts my body. For the last 10 years, I’ve been trying to prove to her that things are different. I attended countless hours of power yoga and suffocatingly hot Bikram yoga. I ran hundreds of miles. I cleansed my colon twice a year and had half a dozen colon hydrotherapy sessions. I attended the gym regularly. I had unmedicated labors with both of my children (well, at least the first 28 hours with Toby). I lost the baby weight and more, and now fit into size 2 jeans.

None of it matters. That little girl still cries because her father teased her by snatching away her ice cream and hiding it under the kitchen table (“for her own good”), even though he was the one who had scooped it out. She still scans the room at parties and public venues to check if she’s the fattest one there. She sucks in her belly and tries to make herself small. She doubts anyone will ever truly love her for herself.

My Shamanic therapist, John, says the key to healing from cancer is practicing self-love. Following the ancient Hawaiian process of ho’oponopono, John says that I have to embrace all the wounded parts of myself, forgive myself, and bring in love (in the words of the ho’oponopono meditation: “I love you, I am sorry, I forgive you”).

Oh, little girl, what would you say if you knew that when you grew up you would have the kindest and gentlest husband who loved you unconditionally? Who would even look at you nude after childbirth and surgeries and with an ileostomy bag swinging from your stomach and tell you he wanted to make love? What would you say if you knew you’d be surrounded by so many loving friends whose support and generosity know no limits? What would you think about your wonderful, round Buddha belly if you knew that, one day, it would grow two beautiful boys? How would you feel about your strength and stamina if you knew your legs would carry you 26.2 miles to the finish line or up and down mountain passes with heavy packs?

The truth, the absolute honest truth is that there was never anything wrong with me. I had a certain shape. And so what that athletics weren’t my bag? I had other interests, like performing in plays and writing poetry. With all the pain, all the dieting and cataloging of food and the desire to be something or someone else, that little girl simply couldn’t realize she was perfect exactly the way she was.

Towards the end of spinning class, Jane cooled us down to “Stairway to Heaven.” I had to laugh—the perfect end to a rocking playlist for us 40-somethings. I had made it through the hour, and to my great delight I hadn’t turned into a puddle of sweat and bones and viscera on the floor as I had feared. My inner coach was throwing a great big happy dance inside of me, but this time the cheer had changed from “not bad.”

“How did you do?” the woman next to me asked as she stretched out her hamstrings.

“Really good,” I said.

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Taming the Animals

February 17, 2011

Last night I dreamt I was at a swanky party in Prague – no doubt the setting of my dream was heavily influenced by the Gary Shteyngart novel on my bedside table.  And though it seemed like I had walked onto a movie set for the film adaptation of his book, I didn’t meet the pretentious 20-something expats that surely would be cast as extras for his film. Instead, I met two gorgeous, funky African-Americans sporting crazy electric hair and the sweetest faces.

I turned to one of them and asked: “Am I going to be okay?”

“Oh yeah,” he smiled generously, “I know you’re going to be all right.”

I fixed my attention on his friend. “What do you think?”

“Sweetheart, you’re already fine.” He took a deep breath, sucked in his cheeks, and looked me over closely. He nodded his head. “I feel that everything is going to work out. That’s what I feel.” Having said his truth, there was nothing more to talk about. And then my two angels in worn t-shirts and silver bracelets vanished into the party leaving the slight trace of amber and coconut oil behind.

My reactions tumbled one after the next: First, relief. How reassured I was to hear these words! To be pronounced healthy! Second: doubt. The familiar wings of anxiety started to snap open and closed, and the doubting voice inside me said: It’s not true; you will not be okay. Right on the heels of doubt came another response, a new internal voice, which asked myself: Why can’t I believe in myself the way others believe in me?

I woke up to this rhetorical question, wishing for a longer visit with my sweet-smelling angels and the ability to have their trust and faith in myself.

When mom had leukemia she quizzed every doctor with the same question: “Am I going to die?” she asked with her terrified and beautiful brown eyes. The doctors all gave non-committal answers that evaded the depth of her question. As the doctors didn’t satisfy her, she brought her question to my father, my sisters, and me: “Am I going to die?”

I regret that my answer was no better than the doctors’. I told her that we’re all going to die. I told her that nobody knows when we’ll die, so we have to live each day as though it were our last. I told her that I could walk out the door and get hit by a bus. I told her that according to Buddhism, the length of our lives is measured in breaths, and when you use your last one, that’s it. (The tricky thing is we don’t know how many breaths we’ve got.)  “The point is,” I said, “we just don’t know.” My mother wasn’t fooled by this carpe-diem, bumper-sticker kind of talk. She’d raise her eyebrows and purse her lips. It was the face she put on to say, “you’re full of shit,” only she was too polite to use those words.

What I remember most about those agonizing conversations was the look in my mother’s eyes, how her pupils dilated in fear and her eyes could never seem to relax and settle on any one thing. The woman was terrified and furious that life had handed her this terribly unfair card, and though she went through treatments with every last ounce of strength and will in her body it seems to me that she never believed she would make it.

I think Alice must have seen the same look in my eyes at our last appointment when we met on a frigid day in January in upstate New York. My herb/iridology healer held my face in her hands and asked me with all the tenderness of a mother the most simple of questions: “How are you?” I had planned to tell her about my latest Cat scan results later in the session, but I couldn’t hold back the tears.

“I’m really afraid,” I whispered. Alice wiped the tears off my cheeks with the warm pads of her fingertips.

“Tell me what the problem is,” she said, still cradling my face in her warm hands. Her face was inches from my own, which normally makes me feel claustrophobic, but when Alice comes in close it’s like sunshine on a winter’s day and I find myself drawing even closer to her warmth. I don’t know how she does it. But her gaze alone is enough to break up the ice that had frozen my heart for the last two weeks.

My first post-treatment CT scan showed a few tiny nodules in my left lung. The radiologist and my oncologist both agreed that they are most likely benign little normal scars, the weird things that show up only when you look closely. “Or,” my oncologist said casually, “it could be the beginning of something.” I hate that word, that little two-letter word. Or burrowed into my brain and took up camp there, not immediately, but after a day or two the fear began to eat away at my thoughts.

I reverted to bad habits. I jumped online and read everything I could find about lung nodules. I asked friends to ask their doctor-husbands and doctor-fathers about these findings. I stayed up late at night reading pulmonary articles and realized again that the web can never be the crystal ball I hope for. Rather, it’s a murky pond at best; the information I found was incapable of telling me if my lung nodules are just benign “thingies” (please God) or if they are metastases. According to most of my readings, it’s a 50-50 chance, and only a follow-up CT scan in three months will give definite results.

Alice told me she’d take a look in my eye to see what’s what. I sat back on the chair and held the wood paddle over my right eye while she shone a flashlight into my left and peered in with the loop. After a moment, she said: “Ahhhh, I see the lesions.” I tried to breathe. Seconds later she jovially slapped my thigh and announced: “It’s not cancer.” I must have given her a very pathetic look because she slapped my thigh again and said: “Breathe! “Do you hear me?  I don’t see anything that’s growing or that looks dangerous.”

I knew that the end of chemo marked the beginning of a new phase of healing: the scan zone. And I knew that every six months had the very distinct potential to bring with it extreme anxiety over the next scan.  With colorectal cancer, most recurrences happen during the first two years post treatment—some docs start the clock after the last chemo treatment and others start it on the day of curative surgery. I just didn’t expect to have my anxiety peak so soon.

One afternoon about a week after the CT results, I lost it in the shower, water, shampoo, tears all flowing down my face. I beat my hands against the plastic enclosure and sobbed until my tears became growls and I touched on the rage that was underlying the sadness, despair, anxiety, panic. I felt the fire of my fury and it was pure animal, just like pushing Leo out 11 months ago was feral and electrifying. Such energy coursed through me! I felt I could kick the shit out of someone or something much bigger than me. Bring it on! But my deep emotional work would have to resume at another time. In mama reality, I had ten minutes to wash the conditioner out of my hair, get dressed, and fly out the door to Toby’s preschool. Such is the life of my spiritual warriorship these days.

The loop and flashlight on the table for the moment, Alice fixed me with her blue eyes and gave me a stern talking to only the way an 80-year-old great-grandmother can do, with authority, fierce love, and a world of life experience to back her up. “You can’t have any fear,” she said. “You have to make up your mind to be here on this planet, and I know you want to be here to raise those babies, so you have to give away that fear.”

“But how?” I thought to myself. In answer to my silent question, she said: “Just give it to God. Any time the fear comes up, just give it to God.” I nodded, still uncertain how I can just “give away my fear.”

“Shira,” she said, “the mind creates the conditions for the body. And you have to be very careful young lady, do you understand?” I nodded. “Now, let’s take another look…”

Fear. It always comes back to that. During these last 10 months of cancer boot camp, whenever I think I’ve learned a lesson, an even deeper question presents itself to me. How do I tame my mind and eliminate anxiety and fear?

I know it seems too simple, too corny, too New Age or spirituality “lite,” but I tell you that my mind lay down its burden after seeing Alice. With her assurance I could sleep again. I stopped obsessively torturing myself with “it’s metastasis, it’s metastasis not” as though I were 10 years old and plucking flower petals trying to guess if David Fireman liked me – he did; he gave me a Smurfette figurine to seal the deal.

These days I’ve stopped talking about leaving instructions on how to raise the kids after I’m gone. I just keep giving it over to God. I can’t tell you what that means exactly – I’m still trying to figure it out myself.  I can tell you that I’m watching my mind, and when that worm of anxiety starts to burrow into my thoughts, I imagine every little cell in my body glowing with health. And then I remind myself of something my friend Amy told me while we ran along the Charles one day, the maxim that ultimately motivated me to run a marathon: “What the mind believes, the body achieves.” I know that Alice is right, that the mind-body connection is infinitely more complex and powerful than we understand, especially when it comes to healing such individualized diseases like cancer.

Maybe my mother sent me those two spectacular angels in my dreams. After all, the song that got her through cancer was Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.” You know, “Don’t worry about a thing, ‘Cause every little thing’s gonna be all right.” Maybe mom’s in good with the Rastafarian spirits.

And while it’s true that I could get hit by a bus and that I don’t know how many breaths I have left in this body and that cancer once grew inside of me, I know that I am here. Right now. Planet Earth.  Healthy. Strong. Taking one deep inhalation after the next.

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Saving the Tree

December 13, 2010

The doorbell rang early one morning. Standing at the door was a short, burly man with a beard wearing a bright yellow reflective vest. Behind him were several large municipal trucks; one had a cherry picker, I noted, forever trained by my 3-year-old to notice every type of vehicle on the road. “I’m here to take care of the tree,” the man told me.

My heart sank. “Is it coming down?”

“No,” he said gruffly. “Someone complained. The tree warden ordered us not to cut it down.” He was obviously unhappy with the decision. “It’s not up to me,” he shrugged, “but I think it should come down.”

“Wait a second,” I said. “You mean you’re going to save the tree?”

“Like I said, it isn’t up to me. I’m just following orders, and the tree warden told us only to take off dead branches.”

“What’s wrong with it?” I asked.

“It’s dying.” He looked at me over the top of his sunglasses and we held each other’s gaze in silence. He had delivered the diagnosis. I took a deep breath. “We’ll see what we can do,” he said with resignation. “You should probably move your car out of the way.”

I practically skipped to the car. David saved the tree! David saved the tree! I couldn’t wait to call my husband and tell him that his petition to the town had worked.

A few weeks ago, we came home to find the large old maple tree in the front of our house had been spray painted with an orange “x.” Our neighbor’s tree was similarly branded. It wasn’t a good sign. Since the trees are actually adjacent to the street, they technically belong to the town. And in the last two years our town has taken down at least four wonderful old trees on our street for what we gathered were poor or no reasons at all. So my dear, tree-loving husband wrote the town a beautiful email about how the tree provides our house with much-needed shade and lends character to the neighborhood. He asked the town to kindly consider cutting only the dead branches and saving the healthy part of the tree. And by some miracle, by some bit of grace, his request was heard.

The tree would not come down. The tree would just get a bit of pruning – okay, a significant amount of pruning – but stand it would.

I watched like a mother hen as the chainsaws bit their metal teeth into the wood. Sawdust flew. Limbs cracked and fell to the ground with heavy thuds. The men were quick, efficient, dispassionate about their work. There was also an air of hostility. It seemed they would have preferred felling the entire tree to taking the time to consider how best to save it. Why must our culture prefer the radical, violent, heavy-handed act over the more sensitive and moderate tact? To the Department of Public Works crew, the tree was just a tree, but to me this was a victory of life over death. Before they left, they painted the orange “x” with white paint: the terminal sentence had been removed.

Two years ago, during a period of four months, my small family tree experienced a tremendous blow when we lost my grandmother, uncle, and father. My grandmother Ethel’s passing at the age of 91 from Alzheimer’s disease was slow, drawn out, and expected. She had talked of wanting to die ever since she lost her daughter, my mother, in 2000. But my uncle’s death, Ethel’s son, was a shock, and still not entirely understood, though we suspect a heart attack. He lived alone and was discovered three days after his death when his bridge club arrived for their regular game and received no answer at the door. And then a month later we received the devastating news that my father’s kidney cancer had metastasized, and cancer was eating away at most of his organs, bones, nerves, everywhere.

My sisters and I gathered together at the hospital in the suburbs of Philadelphia. We were in shock and still bewildered at the speed of Dad’s decline. One evening we sat in the family area, in planning mode with our yellow legal pads of paper yet again. Dad couldn’t stay in the hospital much longer and we had to figure out where we could take him.

Fresh from two family funerals and feeling the effects of hospital-induced delirium, my sisters and I got a little punchy and quite a bit emotional. We took turns taking it all in, coming to terms with the fact that we would soon be parentless. We passed around the box of tissues. “We’ll have to plan family reunions more often,” one of my sisters said. And then we took a look at each other and realized we were having a family reunion. This was it. There would be no picnic, no slide show or t-shirts printed up for the 100 members of our extended family. That fall and winter, our small immediate family became bare bones: I have my sisters and that’s pretty much it. Sure there’s a distant cousin or two, a great aunt I talk to on occasion, but nobody else really.

The spring after Dad died, Sara and I took a morning stroll through conservation land that was just waking up in wildflowers and sticky with mud. As we walked and talked, I came to realize that the upper branches of my family tree had been cut down. It’s funny that the image should have taken me by such surprise but as I said those words I felt the weight of their truth and the grief welled up in me. The elders had moved on. Now my sisters and I occupied the upper branches of our tree. I felt too young for the role. Too inexperienced. I had too many questions and besides I longed for that unconditional love of the older generations. Even if my father and I didn’t always see eye to eye, I could always count on him to be there for me.

In the summer I visited with an African shaman. I was six weeks pregnant with Leo, queasy, and still carrying around so much sadness from the recent losses. I told Mandaza about the deaths. I wondered why it had happened. “Many people are scared of death,” he said, “but no one can avoid it. No one can fly to the ancestors in this body. From the moment we are born we are all dying. Death and birth are twins,” he paused to sniff tobacco from his leather pouch. Then he continued: “Where this house stands there were beautiful trees and flowers. They are on a journey. In order for there to be ancestors, someone must die. That’s how we get angels. In winter, something dies to give us new flowers. So we thank your ancestors who are now on the other side. They see better and know better than when they were in this world.”

And then Mandaza prescribed a ritual, which is what African shamans are fond of doing. He said we needed to welcome the baby, and he instructed the other women in the room to gather around me for we were all the mothers.

“There is a story about this baby,” Mandaza sprinkled water on my face. “The reason why we are creating a healing circle around the world is not for this generation but for the new generation. It was done for us, by Mahatma Gandhi, Jesus, and so on. They did it for us, but now it is time for us to do it for the next generation. This child is our prime minister, our new president, our spiritual leader. For this child there must be peace and love and laughter in your home. No disappointment. Much happiness.” He pressed flowers into my hands and the women embraced me as tears of grief mixed with tears of joy.

When Ilana and Sara first brought up their desire to hold a fundraiser for my family, my dear and very astute friend Ilana pointed out that things would be different if my parents were alive. Oh how those words hit home. All I could do was nod mutely in agreement. I’m 39 years old, and sometimes I just want my mother or father to show me love and sympathy, to be available to babysit their grandchildren, to hold my hand through the scary world of hospitals and diagnoses and disease. To tell me that every little thing is going to be all right.

But here I am, one of the few living branches of the Shaiman family tree. And so that’s why when the men with their chainsaws and chipping machine spared the healthy limbs and saved our maple tree I felt the strength of all the ancestors that came before me. Their blood is in mine, mingling with every wonderful, healthy cell in my body. Though I can’t put my head in my grandmother’s lap or cry to my father on the phone, I feel the ancestors guiding me every step of the way. There has been too much grace for it to be otherwise: uncanny little things, like thinking of someone and getting an email or call from them, or wanting to contact a particular healer and then meeting them by chance at a holiday fair. Again and again, serendipity has been blessing my life and I am listening, following the clues, tracking one angelic nod after the next.

I look forward to the day that I am old and wise enough, my hair long and gray and plaited in braids, to earn the true place of elder on my family’s tree. I will gather all the young ones in the sturdiness of my limbs, Toby and Leo and their children, and God willing their children’s children, and our tree will flower and leaf and fruit. Our tree will flourish.

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Breathing Lessons

November 11, 2010

Looking through old poems, I found this one, which I wrote the year following my mother’s death. It’s strange to be on the other side now, the side of the patient, and read this. I find I constantly step back and forth over that line of the one with the illness and the one who helps the ill to get well. As I walk the path of my own healing I can’t help but reflect on my parents’ experiences with cancer. Somehow it’s all braided together. I feel them on the other shore watching me, loving me, quietly cheering me on.

BREATHING LESSONS

I wanted to be her

when I was a child

sitting under bright kitchen lights

squinting behind her tinted eyeglasses,

my ears heavy with her gold hoops.

I perched on a stool,

proclaiming her name as mine

to all the partygoers—

for the laughter it ignited,

because she was my world.

* * *

Last night I dreamed the disease

entered my body.

My head alabaster smooth,

I’ve become the face in the moon,

pasted in space and no ladder.

How will I get home, Mother?

How will we climb down?

* * *

In the hospital bathroom

I pat her body with the towel—

feather-light strokes,

her skin suddenly rice paper.

I dry her arms, back,

whisper as I travel her legs.

And then we’re standing

in the metal-framed mirror—

one woman in a wool sweater,

the other naked.

I wrap the towel around

my mother’s wet head

until every strand is hidden,

nudge her to the mirror.

“Look how beautiful you are,”

I tell her, “see how pretty you’ll be

even without hair.”

* * *

He hates illness. His eyes tear up

at the scent of disease.

But my father puts on

the yellow robe, gloves,

the mask he’ll remove

as soon as the nurses look away.

And then he’s bounding through the door

with his arms full of mail, the Sunday paper,

whistling hello to my mother

as though he’s just come home from work,

famished, asking what’s for dinner.

* * *

It came out first in the comb,

then the shower,

on the kitchen floor.

It scattered like dandelion spores

on her pillow.

She went to the hairdresser,

told him to take it all off,

she’d be damned if she’d let it fall.

* * *

She can’t get warm, buried

under every blanket in the room,

her teeth chattering staccato hits

like the sewing machine

ticking along the red and white

polka-dotted cloth

of the matching dresses

she made us try on, take off.

My sister blasts the heat,

though she’s perspiring,

stripping off her shirt.

Outside it’s summer,

the Philadelphia sidewalk blooming

with sundresses and tropical plants.

“It’s okay, mama,” my sister

strokes her head, “we’ll get you warm.”

She would take the cold

into her own bones

to stop that trembling,

so she does the only thing she can

and lies on top of my mother,

her body an offering of fire.

* * *

In the forest unknown

no sunlight, no rain,

no path, no breeze, only trees

and spidery branches,

we hunkered there for nine months

like little birds in a nest,

feeding, preening, restless,

at some point we entered

another wood, where we lost track

of a future, each day measured

by the number of clear breaths,

the ability to move from bed to chair,

we learned to count body-time,

the multiplying and death of cells,

we learned to play good memories

over and over like popular songs,

we learned slowly the language

to converse with the natives,

and when we did speak,

we learned there’d always be

more questions than we knew to ask.

For instance, to take someone off life support,

did you know you must first put them on?

In the end, the invincible man

who arrived early thirty-seven years ago

for a blind date, the man my mother

eloped with to escape a slow life,

the hero of her story broke down

and wept when he told the doctor

not to use heroic measures,

so when she reached for him

across the bed rail, what

could he do

but open his trembling hand.

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